Because you weren’t scared enough of the modern world, it’s time for my recaps of the third season of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s cult “5-10 minutes in the future” sci-fi anthology series. Of course, it’s not so cult anymore, now that it’s come to American shores with Netflix production values. With bigger stars, bigger worlds, and a wider reach than ever, does Black Mirror keep its uniquely bleak voice intact?
Let’s find out with the first episode of this season: “Nosedive”
WHAT’S THE IDEA HERE?
The desperate search for acceptance on social media as an entire societal structure.
In this world, an app that allows you to rate people from 1 to 5, based on your interactions with them and based on the ever-present timeline feeds displayed on lenses and cell phones. Those ratings give you a social ranking, based on how you interact with service workers, friends, and random people around you on the street. The highest-ranked are the social elite, receiving special privileges and considerations, and the lowest-ranked are the underclass.
Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard) is obsessed with being well-received, practicing and carefully curating every aspect of her life. She lives with her brother Ryan (James Norton), whose lower social ranking fills her with shame and leads her to seek to move to a more elite area, which requires her to reach a 4.5 from her 4.2.
An opportunity arises when an old friend Naomi (Alice Eve) asks her to be her maid of honor. She knows that a rousing Maid of Honor speech could help her break the threshold she needs.
Spoiler alert: It does not go well.
HOW’S THE IDEA WORK?
The elephant in the room here is that Black Mirror is leading off with an idea that’s already been explored elsewhere. This is functionally the premise of the Community episode “App Developments and Condiments,” though that one certainly went a different route.
The key Black Mirror difference is (besides the quality of filmmaking, which we’ll get to later) the direction of the story. While still plenty of comedy here, owing to script work by Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation) and Rashida Jones (Celeste & Jesse Forever), the premise is mined for its stomach-churning pathos, grounded in surprisingly strong character work.
That is fundamentally what makes “Nosedive” work. Black Mirror is about making sure you empathize with the human element inside of its sci-fi darkness, and Lacie is easy enough to empathize with. The script never plays her as shallow or vain. Rather, her impulses to be liked are all too recognizable. She’s a sweet young person who wants people to understand and like her and is constantly performing what she believes are the motions that are required. The script puts her through constant humiliation, but never loses sight that she hasn’t really earned this treatment.
It’s only that she’s bought into an ever-present, difficult to ignore system. The message here is definitely nothing new. Social media forcing us to perform at all times, that feeling of constantly being monitored and seeing ourselves and others through our technology (Black Mirror, get it?) is pretty much the Black Mirror Message Special.
But “Nosedive” grounds it in a likeable character and a solidly recognizable mini-universe. We get a remarkable economy of detail, which helps avoid some of the less original aspects of the story. Brooker finding social media disturbing isn’t anything new, but “Nosedive” is a reasonably strong way to tell it. This is, of course, minus the choice of a brief sojourn into a wise sage who shows Lacie the error of her ways, which is the show being a little too on-the-nose for its own good.
It’s also fortunate he has Joe Wright directing. Wright can be iffy (based on the story he picked), but when the man has a good script, his eye for sumptuous visual detail is like few others. Wright guides the camera with a steady hand and captures a shiny, pastel-colored world that makes the excessively mannered way people act blend, and those who deviate from it pop out. It’s not exactly his most out-there visual work, but Wright does a lot with a little here.
And as with most Black Mirror, it’s the lead’s show, and Howard is more than up to the challenge. Howard’s had a hell of a year distinguishing herself from being the B-game Jessica Chastain, finding her identity in her warmth and her mannered performances. Those qualities what she brings to Lacie, an absolute mannered control that feels legitimately friendly, we see why people might like her, but we see why we like her even more when she loses her control. Her breakdown is satisfying in a way that few Black Mirror episodes ever let themselves be, and it’s all on Howard’s strong lead.
Points must also be thrown to Alice Eve, playing Naomi, who does a bang-up job playing an absolute social elite in this world. Her video call with Lacie is a work of beauty, the way she’s constantly holding herself as though she’s posing for a selfie to go around the world, even when she’s just talking one-on-one.
I can’t lie, there’s something about this episode that hits close. Social media is still a thing that confuses and terrifies me, even if I’m writing this on WordPress to put on Facebook and Twitter in the hopes that you all do the same. The idea of a social structure based on it is one of those “just close enough to the truth” things that makes you want to dry heave a bit.
It’s a strong enough beginning for this season. While this isn’t Charlie Brooker’s best idea, and by no means his most original, it’s a show of how the wit and the craft and the character focus keeps Black Mirror as one of the most vital shows on TV.
Just a signal of where these episodes fit in the grand scheme, and to give you some ideas of my taste.
- Fifteen Million Merits – A+
- Be Right Back – A
- White Bear – A
- The Entire History of You – A
- White Christmas – A-
- The National Anthem – A-
- Nosedive – B+
- The Waldo Moment – C